Topical Scripture: Colossians 2:16-23
Some criminals need to be in jail for their own protection.
For instance, I read this week about a man who attempted to siphon gasoline from a motor home parked on a Seattle street. However, the confused criminal plugged his hose into the motor home’s sewage tank by mistake. The owner declined to press charges, as the man had already been punished enough.
45-year-old Amy Brasher was arrested recently in San Antonio, Texas, after a mechanic found 18 packages of marijuana in the engine compartment of her car. She had brought the car in for an oil change, and didn’t realize the mechanic would have to raise the hood to change the oil.
Then there were the counterfeiters who sent their jammed printer for service. Trouble was, they left in place the counterfeit bills which jammed the press. They’re now awaiting trial as well.
With the new scanners and printers, counterfeit money is more a problem than ever before. And fakes exist in other areas of life as well. Fake antiques; knock-off watches and jewelry; pirated DVDs and identity theft abound. But the earliest counterfeit operation in history is still the deadliest: fake faith.
Satan wants you to reject God and his word entirely. If you won’t do that, he’ll try to get you to substitute a fake for the genuine article. If he can’t make you bad by refusing the right things, he’ll make you busy about the wrong things.
He doesn’t mind if you are passionate about the wrong faith. In fact, he’s rather amused by such deception. This week we’ll encounter one of the most practical issues in all of Christianity: the difference between full and fake faith, and why it all matters so much to you.
Religious activity (vs. 16-17)
There are three ways we know everything we know–the pragmatic, the intuitive, and the rational. Most of us are pragmatic about most of life. We use cell phones and drive cars, not because we understand them, but because they work.
One way to counterfeit Jesus is purely pragmatic: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (v. 16).
“What you eat or drink” refers to acts of worship in their culture. The Lord’s Supper and all-church fellowships come the closest in ours.
“Or with regard to a religious festival”–Jewish celebrations like Passover and Pentecost, Christmas and Easter to us.
“Or a Sabbath day”–the synagogue worship on the Sabbath, or its equivalent to the Gnostics. Sunday church to us. “Stop letting people judge you” by these things.
But why? It just makes practical sense that activity proves relationship.
You prove that you’re a member of the Dallas Women’s Club by attending events and supporting programs. You prove you’re a Republican or Democrat by how you vote, not what you say.
Years ago, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca stepped onto an elevator. A man gushed, “I love your commercials.” Iacocca snapped, “I don’t care what you think about my commercials. What kind of car do you drive?” Activity proves relationship.
Except that it doesn’t. As Paul warns, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (v. 17).
Every real thing casts its shadow. Love for my wife casts its shadow in the things I do because I love her. But I can do them for someone I hate as well. Love for my church motivates me to preach, teach, and write. But I can do these things for my sake rather than God’s or yours.
Religious activity is but a shadow, and a shadow can be cast by anything, good or bad.
How does this counterfeit Jesus tempt us today? Church services, Sunday school attendance, singing in the choir, serving on committees, all the usual things. If they are an end rather than a means to an end, they’re counterfeit. If you think you are right with God just because you came to church, you’re mistaken.
Standing in a bank lobby doesn’t prove that I know the bank president, or that I even have a relationship with that bank. Augustine said that the church has some that God hasn’t, and God has some that the church hasn’t. Religious activity is no guarantee of real Christianity. Our culture is convinced that going to church makes us Christians. Don’t be fooled.
Religious experience (vs. 18-19)
Others of us are more intuitive than pragmatic. We discover truth by how it feels to us, how we experience it personally. Satan has a counterfeit Jesus for this person as well.
“Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize” (v. 18a). “False humility” in their spiritual lives and activities related to fasting, prayer, and other spiritual disciplines. “The worship of angels”–the worship angels give and invite us to join, “angelic worship.” Worship in its highest expression.
Feeling equals relationship. Except that such experience can “puff us up with idle notions,” making us think we are closer to God than we are. If I’m so moved by worship, I must be right with the Lord. If I have been moved by prayer, I must be right with the One to whom we pray.
Such fake faith disconnects the body from the head, focusing on what we experience rather than the One we experience.
So don’t base your faith on your feelings. I questioned my salvation for more than a year because I didn’t feel anything when I trusted Christ. Only later did I realize that the Bible nowhere tells us how it feels to become a Christian, or to worship, or to witness, or to be obedient to God’s will. Feelings are the caboose at the end of the train, not the engine driving it.
And don’t base your worship on your feelings. If you came to church for feelings you came for the wrong reason. If you came to be inspired or uplifted, you came for the result rather than the Cause. When you focus on the experience rather than the God who gives it, you lose both.
The way to be happy personally is to make others happy, not to seek happiness as an end in itself. If you focus on joy rather than Jesus, you miss both.
Religious morality (vs. 20-23)
Some of us are pragmatic, tempted to base our faith on religious activity. Others of us are more intuitive, tempted to base our faith on our feelings. Still others of us are rational by nature. We like our truth to be logical, non-contradictory, systematic. We like rules and regulations, charts and diagrams, moral systems for every question and issue.
And the enemy is happy to oblige.
“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Do not handle, or taste, or even touch the physical world. As you know, the Gnostics separated the spiritual from the secular, the soul from the body. Some therefore taught that we can do anything we like with our bodies, since they don’t matter.
Others were the Gnostic legalists–they taught that since our bodies are bad, they must be disciplined and punished severely. This phrase comes from that school of thought. Keep the rules! Obey the regulations! Learn the right thing to do, and do it.
What’s wrong with religious legalism? Such rules “are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings” (v. 22b). You can’t keep it up. You can’t keep all the rules, all the time.
And such rules have an appearance of wisdom but “they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (v. 23). They don’t change your heart. You’re always trying not to do what you really want to do. And that’s misery defined.
The simple fact is, we can keep the rules without ever having a relationship.
At a large university, you can enroll in freshman English, attend every class, make an A on every test, and never know the professor. At a large corporation, you can be on time for work every day for ten years and never meet the company president.
You can attend worship and Bible study, read your Bible and pray, and live by the Ten Commandments, all in your own initiative and ability. The rich young ruler told Jesus he had kept all of them, and he meant it.
I have seen Muslims worship with such fervency on their prayer rugs that their foreheads were bleeding. I have seen Buddhists burn money at the grave of their ancestors. I have seen Hindus live in abject conditions to obey their caste system. The rules do not guarantee a relationship.
Tellers and cashiers are trained to examine the portrait, seals, border, and paper of the money they handle. They use pens which stain normal paper but leave no mark on real currency. But the most effective strategy is the simplest: in training, they are made to spend hours and hours with the real thing. They handle, feel, and see real money for so long that they can tell a fake the moment they find it.
The solution to fake faith is full faith. Religious activity, experience, and morality not as ends but as means. Not as the gods we worship, but as ways to worship our God. We get involved in the activities, experiences, and moral standards of our faith because God loves us, not so he will. Because he has forgiven and accepted us, not so he might. Because we have received his mercy, not so we can.
This is an issue of deep and enormous importance. The power of ancient religions was always the power to curse. People went to their temples and made their sacrifices in order to appease the gods and escape their wrath. This is because such an impulse is basic to the human condition.
We all know that we are not what we should be. We know that we deserve to be punished for our sins by the omniscient God of the universe. Guilt over our failures and the fear of failing again motivates us to do better and try harder.
All the while, our Father is waiting to bless his children. He is waiting to forgive and forget our past, and guide and bless our future. He is waiting to give his nature, power, and victory to all who will open his gifts. He is waiting to bless all who will live for his glory, in his fear, radically and completely surrendered to him. Not so he will love us, but because he already does.
Why did you come to worship today? So God would love you, or because he does? So he would forgive you, or because he has? So he would accept you, or because he already loves and likes you as you are? Henri Nouwen, the great Catholic theologian and spiritual writer, puts all this better than I can. May I read to you from his wisdom?
“Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don’t you often hope: ‘May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.’ But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.
“Well, you and I don’t have to kill ourselves. We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved.’
“Listening to that voice with great inner attentiveness, I hear at my center words that say: ‘I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover and your spouse…wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one'” (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved [New York: Crossroad, 1996] 30-1).